While discussing freedom of speech and freedom of religion with a group of German students last week, newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry told them "Americans have the right to be stupid."
Kerry came under fire, particularly among political conservatives, for misrepresenting Americans and American liberties abroad. The quote was part of his explanation of how distasteful and offensive points of view can be tolerated as free speech in the U.S. (He mentioned provocative, insulting signs… wonder who that could be?)
Still, the idea of referring to the First Amendment as the "right to be stupid" struck many the wrong way, seen reflective of a government ever closer to reducing freedom of speech and freedom of religion, both sacred tenants of American culture and thought.
His comments—and the headlines they spurred—are especially troubling when you consider that much of the world does not share in our freedom of speech or freedom of religion, and may never have the right to criticize their government or enjoy the First Amendment liberties we celebrate.
As a female American expatriate currently living in Cairo, I know firsthand how other countries across the globe—from the Egypt to China—remain embattled in freedom of speech and freedom of religion struggles of their own. The right to be "stupid" and the right to speak out and to worship freely are clearly very different to someone longing after the latter.
It was hard to hear Kerry's statement from the context of the Middle East, where in many places it is a crime to openly talk about Christ or convert anyone to Christianity. Christians have been denied voting rights in previous elections; threatened, intimidated, beaten. Protestors arrested for exercising freedom of speech—even on Facebook—can be tortured or killed. Female protesters also face violence, and unveiled school girls are harassed.
There is a reason American soldiers are willing to die for our freedom. It is much, much more than the right to be stupid. Americans stand behind these freedoms as rights from God, to worship him and be called his people. Christians in the U.S. should be paying very close attention to religious freedom in our own country and in places where it's not as easy to affiliate with Christ.
Religious freedom obviously allows for open evangelism and a freer expression of our beliefs, but it also lets us live as God created us to be. He made us with the freedom to choose our faith, to know him through a relationship, not because we were forced into one religion or another. It's not stupid to speak out and live in a just society; to worship who we chose; to pray, without fear, arrest, harassment, abuse, or intimidation. It's freeing and God-glorifying.
I hope Kerry will learn this as he continues his Middle East tour, which began this week in Egypt, an area rife with protest, political struggle, and human rights investigations. Egypt is a place where protests continue to rock the country, often leaving violence, death, and rape in their wake. I hope he understands that lack of stability here involves the economy, a deeply polarized society, and troubling issues over religious discrimination, extremism, organized rapes, and excessive police brutality. He will face similar issues across the Middle East, particularly in Syria.
Christians who continue to face persecution around the world often look to American Christians to continue to uphold religious freedom and set a standard. Coptic Christians in Egypt have told me that one of their greatest fears is that someday America will no longer be a place where Christians can express and live out their faith as freely as we can now. If that ever happens, they expect persecution to worsen worldwide.
We have to uphold these rights not only for ourselves, but also as a symbol and sign of justice to Christians around the world. Our freedoms are their hope.
Tonyia Martin is a Christian writer currently living in Cairo, Egypt. She is a columnist at http://www.gracecentered.com.